Billy Bragg probably hits the nail on the head when he tells us ‘you probably know Woody Guthrie through Bob Dylan’. It’s the nature of musical legacy: Guthrie might be world-renowned for his role in popularizing the political, storytelling angle on songwriting and pushing it beyond its more word-of-mouth, inter-generational aspects, but he’s often more an introductory paragraph in someone else’s story these days. That’s not to say he’s not a musical legend, of course, just that even in music legends only last so long.
It does say something for Guthrie, though, that generations later he still has a number of serious ‘interpreters’ (being unable to write music, he left behind less clear notations than many far older contemporaries). Today’s support act Andy Irvine is one of the better known ones. The former Planxty man has that accented, rasping vocal down pat, and regales us with a few Guthrie-inspired tales along the way. He’s clearly a devotee, though the set up can lack a little bite, being particularly mellow and folksy compared to what’s to follow. The highlight comes when he describes jumping a freight train from Galway to Dublin in a Guthrie inspired moment, and the general tone is samey but gorgeous.
Billy Bragg is better known for his own embittered political output, but does have a concrete Guthrie connection: The Mermaid Avenue Sessions, recording with folk heroes Wilco at the request of Guthrie’s daughter Nora. Bizarrely, the sessions were produced almost entirely from the lyrics Guthrie left behind, songs penned at a point when he could no longer write as prolifically as he had, in the latter stages of his tragic, developing Huntingdon’s disease. Bragg openly admits that the productions aren’t so much in the style of Guthrie as reinterpretations of the material in a less imitative style. Those tracks, falling somewhere between Guthrie himself and Bragg’s more direct, punk-folk style make up much of tonight’s set.
A few tracks really stand out. ‘Ingrid Bergmann’ sees Bragg dive into Guthrie’s re-imagination of the actress’ marital indiscretions, in which he is the man impregnating the actress on a crude double entendre of a Mediterranean volcano. ‘Airline to Heaven’, sung by Wilco man Jay Bennett on the original sessions albums, shows a more afflicted and delicate side to the man, who penned so many songs over his extended career that the representations of repressed southern states and later, slicker New York records represent only a fraction of what he actually produced. The truth is, we’ll probably never know what a lot of Guthrie’ work ever sounded like live, especially as the full extent of it certainly stretched to more than a track for every day of his healthy adult life.
What Bragg does superbly, though, comes unsurprisingly in underlining the political aspects. Mega-hit ‘This Land Is Your Land’ is conspicuous by its absence, but instead we get an intense rendition of ‘All You Fascists Bound To Lose’, accompanied by one of Guthrie’s more well-known anecdotes, his charming tendency to stick the words ‘This machine kills fascists’ to his guitar, a measure of his generation. When Bragg reappears for the encore, we’re treated to a couple of his own protest songs, not least a topical rendition of ‘Never Buy The Sun’, as intense and cutting as ever.
We might be dealing, in many cases, in more of a tribute than a demonstration of Guthrie’s work tonight, especially from Bragg, but with the folkster having proved so inarguably influential, having two such talented musicians demonstrate just why is something of a musical history lesson in itself. That – and Billy Bragg’s remarkable ability to make things immediate and important – make tonight quite an experience.